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Sparks is growing up

Drag Queen Story Hour at the Sparks Library on Saturday, July 20, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Reno is so close to Hell, you can see Sparks!

It’s an old joke, and it’s also illustrative of Sparks’ perceived place in the world as an accessory to its much more popular neighbor immediately to the west. Reno is the “Biggest Little City”; Sparks is a bit more than a third of the size. Reno was the “Divorce capital of the world”; Sparks was where the trains that took you there were maintained. Reno gets featured in movies and TV shows; Sparks gets mentioned in comics. Reno had Mary Ann; Sparks had Karl Rove. Plenty of people in Northern Nevada read the Reno Gazette-Journal; the Sparks Tribune doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. (That’s a shame, by the way, as the Sparks Tribune occasionally reprints news from The Nevada Independent, like Taylor Avery’s story about UNR’s plans to house students in one of the Circus Circus towers.)

To say that Sparks has historically lived in Reno’s shadow is true — but misses the point. Sparks has lived in Reno’s shadow the way a fern lives in the shadow of a large tree, not as a competitor but as a symbiote. Unlike Reno, which was built to serve as a regional commercial center in the late 19th century, Sparks was built as a company town. For half a century, Sparks’ role was to house and provide services to the employees of the Southern Pacific railyard, and that was about it. 

That changed after World War II. 

On one hand, the modernization of railroad operations rendered the maintenance facilities in Sparks redundant. In 1956, Southern Pacific closed the railyard, ripping the core of Sparks’ economy out with it. On the other hand, US 40, the predecessor to Interstate 80, ran right through Sparks — and highway tourism was booming. And fortuitously, a new casino — the Sparks Nugget — had opened a year before the closing of the railway. In those days, when Nevada had a monopoly on legalized domestic gambling, building a new casino was a license to print money and create jobs, and that’s exactly what the Sparks Nugget did. 

Even so, Sparks could not escape geography. Reno is closer to California and its tourists. At the height of Northern Nevada gaming’s salad days, you could count the number of sizeable casinos in downtown Sparks with both arms; one of the two ultimately closed and was demolished to make way for an outdoor amphitheater. Consequently, while tourism was central to Reno’s economy (for a while), Sparks never had that luxury. Instead, Sparks specialized in blue collar industrial work, effectively serving as the region’s first TRIC long before Lance Gillman converted his ranch into batteries and blockchains. 

In a lot of ways, being in Reno’s shadow has been beneficial to Sparks. While Reno’s City Hall is an imposing monolith purchased to bail the Cal Neva out of an aging real estate liability (a habit Reno entertains from time to time), Sparks City Hall is a small, easily navigated complex easily mistaken for a former elementary school. While the Reno City Council is frequently observed through a microscope, its decisions on flood control, strip clubs, and which legal briefs it supports carefully scrutinized, the Sparks City Council is traditionally treated with benign neglect, allowing it to operate with enviable efficiency, as some in the community have noted more than once

Sometimes, however, Reno doesn’t cast a shadow. Sometimes, Reno casts attention instead. 

The Washoe County Library System, like most public library systems, has been struggling for years to remind people that yes, libraries still exist and are a good thing, actually (replacing libraries with Amazon would be like replacing Spotify with iTunes, and even if you’re a free market fundamentalist, that’s not the direction the market is going). That’s a shame, as there’s really no substitute, not even on the internet, for a room full of books you didn’t realize existed about topics you’ve never heard of. Algorithms are great at helping us dig deeper into our interests and passions, but if you want to improve the breadth and not just the depth of them, there’s something to be said for being able to aimlessly wander the aisles of a library discovering the existence of new subjects at a glance.

To rectify this, the Washoe County Library System did what any struggling casino would do — they brought in a new act. No matter how you feel about Drag Queen Story Hour (personally, I was dragged to enough Renaissance Faires growing up where I just can’t do costumed events, but you do you), you have to admit, they know how to draw a crowd. 

Question was, where should the Washoe County Library System draw the crowd to...?

Regardless of the answer to that question, we know where they ultimately chose: the Sparks Public Library, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Trouble is, whereas Reno has an openly LGBTQIA+-friendly mayor, an openly gay city councilman, and a Human Rights Commission — in other words, people who understand the cultural context the Drag Queen Story Hour exists in, the demographics it’s appealing to, and so on, and could intelligently answer questions about the event iif asked — Sparks, well… 

How do I put this…?

Sparks does not. 

Instead, what Sparks has is an ailing mayor and five of the most anonymous City Council members (four councilmen, one councilwoman) a growing city could vote for. To be clear, they’re probably very nice people. Ed Lawson, to his credit, actually showed up to the most interesting thing to happen in Sparks since Helms Pit transmogrified into the Sparks Marina, which is more than can be said for any of his colleagues. However, to say they’re not used to answering questions about anything more controversial than, say, the opening of a fire station would be as obvious an observation as noting that Las Vegas occasionally gets warm during the summer.

Consequently, when the Reno-Gazette Journal interviewed Mayor Ron Smith, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he took the opportunity to wedge his foot into his mouth. What surprised everyone, on the other hand, was that he found room for both feet and continued swallowing. Here’s an actual quote of his from the interview:

"It is absolutely ridiculous. Why would you have transgender people talking to kids?"

That’s a fair question if all you know about transgender people is what you vaguely remember from ogling someone in drag while on shore leave during the Vietnam War. It’s a less fair question if you expect the mayor of a city to not fall asleep, Rip Van Winkle-style, through the past 50 years of cultural change. More damningly, it revealed that, despite Drag Queen Story Hour being a topic of discussion in the local community for more than a month by the time the interview happened, the mayor of the city hosting the event neither knew nor understood the basics of the event his city was about to host — like, for example, that people in drag aren’t necessarily trans, and vice-versa.

Unsurprisingly, Smith tried to desperately backpedal as fast as his feet could carry him, which was ultimately not very far. Equally unsurprisingly, the anonymous and largely feckless City Council, conspicuous by its absence, is trying desperately to hide from the community, cancelling its next two meetings.

Will it work? This time it might. Nobody pays attention to the Sparks City Council, after all, and that’s not going to change because the local library finally got some people through the door. At some point, however — some point soon — people are going to start to pay attention to how Nevada’s fifth-largest city, governing more than 100,000 people, conducts its affairs. At some point, people will start to question, for example, why their city council approved tax breaks to move a department store east a few blocks, only to leave the store’s original footprint empty for a decade. 

Once that happens, they’ll have to stop hiding, do their homework, and learn how to answer a question or two.

Disclosure: David Colborne’s fiancee, Wendy Stolyarov, is running for Sparks City Council, Ward 1. She did not contribute, proofread, or otherwise participate in the writing of this opinion.

David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].

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